Либрусек (книги fb2)
Waltz for K.
I dropped in on Nikolai Petrovich just like that, for no reason. It was a violet, vibrant evening. Spring already possessed Moscow utterly. At least the old back streets of Sretenka were tipsy with it. A girl with a spray of pussy willows ran into me right outside his house. And she herself was like the willow: her hair loose, shivering a little, peeping out from inside herself. I knocked on the dirty window—Nikolai Petrovich lived on Lukov Street, in a communal apartment, in a lop-sided little room at the end of a dull, yellow corridor. The little passage leaned sideways, the floorboards squeaked and tended to spring loose, a light bulb hung in dismal nakedness, and the place reeked of years of misery. A sour, depressing smell....
Nikolai Petrovich had a cat, an enormous coal-black monster of an animal. Lifting him down from some cupboard, Nikolai Petrovich—Kolenka, Nikusha—would say: “This cat weighs as much as an expensive black pudding.”
As I opened the door I already knew that the cat would rub his back against the bookstand, his fur crackling with Bengal lights, would wait, the rascal, to be scratched behind the ear: which was a mass of scar tissue—he was a real street fighter, this old torn.
Nikolai Petrtfvich was sitting in a pool of orange light. A dusty pre-revolutionary lampshade with tassels hung low over the table. To the uninitiated Nikolai Petrovich’s room was reminiscent of a book depository. Every square inch, except for a small island round the table and the perpetually unmade bed behind a tattered screen, was crammed with books. Of course, there was a clipboard, there were shelves, there was a broken-down and badly listing bookcase, but this was more or less normal. The trouble was, Nikolai Petrovich didn’t have enough room, and the entire floor was covered with sheaves, pyramids, towers of books. And it was through this obstacle course, stepping along a narrow path in the wake of my feline friend, that I made my way to the table. I don’t want to labor the point, but the table was a sort of scaled-down version of the room: little islands, footpaths, and all the rest taken up with papers, Babylons of letters, Bethlehems of gifts: and it was categorically forbidden to move anything. Nikolai Petrovich reached his pale thin hand to me across the table. “Hello, Okhlamonov,” he said, in his out‑of‑town accent, “would you like some tea?”
He moved with remarkable adroitness through his papyrus jungle, tucking in a shoulder so as not to displace a volume by the bootmaker Jakob Boehme that had been sticking out at an angle for the last six months, hopping over a sheaf of children’s stories by the window, and—now—plugging in an ancient hot plate, poking the element with a knife, measuring out a parsimonious mugful of water from a jug; he no longer set foot in the kitchen, he couldn’t stand it. I should say that Kolenka, Nikusha, was a melancholy or perhaps rather self-absorbed man of about thirty, a poet. Once he went into the communal kitchen for some trifle, matches, or salt, and unfortunately got into a scene—the most banal sort, where people wave their arms, trade insults, shove each other in the shoulder, and so forth. And Nikolai Petrovich, as he said later, lost an entire line. It went clean out of his head. He sat up all night over his bit of paper, but the fugitive line refused to be coaxed back. Ever since then he has made tea and boiled potatoes on the window sill in his room.
He was given the hardest time of all by women, especially women who just happened by. They would go into absolute ecstasies over his room, and invariably asked the same idiotic questions: “Where do I apply to join the library?” or words to that effect. And they would try to pull something out from right at the bottom, so that Nikolai Petrovich, turning green, would hurl himself across the room to shore up a leaning tower of oriental poetry which was just about not only to shower books on the footpath, but to topple a couple more neighboring edifices. “Ah, for God’s sake, don’t touch!” he would shout, whereupon the ladies usually desisted. They were astonished by his tone of voice: they realized then that he meant business. “I am very much afraid,” he would explain to them, “of having things moved around without my knowledge.” For Nikolai Petrovich, and this was the point, had read all these books. And knew exactly where each book was.
Raising my eyes from these lines, I see that I should perhaps apologize for a certain diffuseness, for going off the point, but the times themselves were confused, much had not yet revealed itself, and the very air was thick with “somehow or other,” with “sort of” and “as it were.” Moreover, workdays and holidays alike were riddled with machine-gun bursts of dots.... We lived in a state of not-quite-embodiment.
The water sang its brief song and was poured into the stained teapot. “Okhlamonov,” my host requested, “I beg you, do not move anything on the table.... “I was not offended. It was a ritual sentence. Only once did I pull out from under some heap of papers a small portrait of a woman with a complicated upswept coiffure and misty eyes. From her face I could tell she was not from these parts, you don’t see faces like that on our streets. I took a good long look, and that time we quarreled.
Nikolai Petrovich, lifting his feet high in the dangerous places, made his way back to the table and set the tray down in an island. Without looking he reached behind him and produced two small silver cups. The vodka was under the table. Warm, of course.... We saluted one another in silence and drank up. The cat, which knew perfectly well what was allowed and what wasn’t, sprang softly up on the table. With a sidelong glance at his master he tested the snowdrift of paper for firmness—this was allowed—showed his Turkish claws, stretched, and finally lay down. The other side of the wall somebody started strumming an out-of-tune guitar. An ambulance could be heard racing down the street. “You know, I’ve been having problems with Katenka,” said my host, “she really is too young for me. She’s out of her mind! Listen, Okhlamonov, last time she laughed so hard in bed she fell out! Right on top of Karamzin, of course! It was a nightmare, the whole history of the Russian empire came tumbling down. But that, Okhlamonov, that’s nothing.... She’s so hot-blooded! I got out of bed to put everything back in order, just as I was, of course, stark naked, and the dear crazy girl, I don’t quite know how to put it, just sort of flung herself on top of me, right on the books! Right on top of Russian history.... I thought she was fooling, but then I saw the look in her eyes, all misty and serious, biting her lip.... And then we, as it were, on top of Russian history, and she crying out the way she always does....”
Nikolai Petrovich poured some more vodka. I could not see his face. It was hidden somewhere behind the tasseled lampshade, fringed with the grey dust of many years. But the hand in its clean, threadbare cuff shook violently. “As it is I have problems with the neighbors,” my host went on, “and she knows it. How often have I asked her: ‘Katenka, couldn’t you somehow, at that last moment, restrain yourself?...’ She gets offended. Says rude words. Even weeps.... And goes right on crying out! I would try and stop her mouth, you know, with a pillow or something. But unfortunately I myself lose track completely—I get into something else altogether. And then I open my eyes and right away I know: “She did it again, she cried out!... What can you do?”—and Nikolai Petrovich began nervously tugging at his sparse beard. It was a thoroughly Chinese sort of beard, you could see right through it. Katenka I had seen a few times. The ladies who used to “happen by” had by then completely vanished. And I remember how the very first evening my heart turned over. At that time I did not yet know that she and Nikolai Petrovich shared an immortal love. What was it about her that struck me? I don’t know. One could say that everything did. She was barely sixteen, and perhaps I’ve put my finger on it: what was so striking was the combination of child-like purity and the most utter wantonness. Catching sight of me under the lampshade, I remember she said, right in front of Kolya, “Okhlamonov, do you know, I never” (that “n-e-e-ever” was her first gift, that lingering, floating “e”), “never wear anything underneath?” And like a ballet dancer she pirouetted in a clearing between Gogol and the medical encyclopedia, all brown under the flimsy little dress, no chaste strips of white to interrupt her tan.... Nikolai Petrovich sucked in his cheek as if he had a loose filling, and stared down at the table. I blushed to the eyebrows and went hot all over, so that my head spun just like that sweet little dress. “Katya,” said our host, “I ask you to desist.” And then he raised his eyes to me and added very quietly: “Okhlamonov, if she starts touching you, pay no attention. She and I share an immortal love.”
We drank up our vodka and set about the tea. Nikolai Petrovich used to buy tea on the black market. He was forever blending something, pouring it from one canister to another, sniffing it. “Tea,” he would say, “must be brewed with water brought to a fast boil. Remember that, my friend. But the thing, after letting it draw for five minutes, is to immediately ‘marry’ it.... “ And I watched how, without spilling a drop, Nikolai Petrovich went about “marrying” the tea. To do this, he poured from the teapot a cupful of the thick brick-red brew and then quickly, so as to save the steam that billowed up from under the lid, poured it back. The rite was concluded.
Sometimes he would ask: “Okhlamonov? Would you like some poetry?” And to refuse would have been criminal; besides, I always liked what he wrote. Katenka inhabited his most recent poems. But remember his poetry I never could. Only once did something stick—and stuck for good—something along the lines of:
Night stands outside the window,
Actually, I can’t guarantee that I have these lines exactly right.
“How’s life?” asked my host, “have you taken any new pictures?” I should mention that I am a photographer. Not the sort you find in some studio on Petrovka: “Lift your chin. Don’t blink. Click. Two roubles. Click. Three twenty at the cash register.” No. I take pictures of life. As it is. Not tidied up. This is theft, of course. But not voyeurism. Some sharp-tongued lady once said to me: “You’re a voyeur, Okhlamonov, you’re always peeping. There you are right now, looking at me and wondering what I’m like under my buttons.” She was quite wrong. In any case, I don’t agree. The voyeur slips through a hole in the fence, lifts a corner of the window shade. Whereas I take pictures of puddles after rain, drunks at the Tishinsky market, people on the escalator in the metro, fallen leaves in the park. And if among the leaves I should happen upon someone’s bare knee that’s just fate. How was I to know there was a couple there. What interested me was the look of the leaf-strewn alley. And what’s more, I most often work with a telephoto lense—it flattens space, displaces things, turns everyday banalities into dream. As for that lady, let someone else unfasten her. If it were up to me I would add even more buttons. Although that’s a bit harsh.
“What’s new?” I replied. “I really don’t know. Oh, I’ve been asked to give lessons.—Have you any sugar?”
Asking for sugar for tea, I mean for the sort of tea Nikolai Petrovich made, was something akin to a crime. But what could I do? I have a terribly sweet tooth. For example, when I am sad or out of sorts, I buy an Othello, a kind of chocolate cake they always have at our baker’s, and eat it all up, in one go, with a spoon, standing at the window, always gazing out at the same thing—the streetcar stop. An Othello, let me add, weighs 450 grams. “I don’t advise you to take pupils,” said Nikolai Petrovich, getting up for the sugar, “you’ll be worn out. I once had two beginner poets. And you know what? One put the worst words in the best possible order, the other just the opposite: the best words in the worst possible order. If they’d just been Siamese twins‑‑‑‑‑”
“I understand,” I said sadly. After all, a pupil means extra cash. “But just lately I’ve been feeling sort of vague, how can I put it—like in frosty weather when the lens suddenly fogs up and you can’t see a damn thing,...”
“Yes?” grunted Nikolai Petrovich. “Well, I too...,” and briefly rising from his chair he again reached up blindly to the top shelf for the sugar, and fixed me with a look. “Something peculiar is happening to me, Okhlamonov. At first I thought it was a trap set by my age, a dead end...” He was speaking more and more slowly, and then began quite visibly to rise in the air, where he hung, about 20 centimeters off the floor. I could see his old trunk under the bed! Nikolai Petrovich rocked—I’m afraid to say it—playfully back and forth, hanging securely in midair, and waved his arms apologetically. The strangest thing of all is that I took this without surprise. Only my heart skipped a beat and out of the corner of my eye I saw the cat jump off the table and rush to the window.
“It’s really not difficult, Okhlamonov,” said Nikolai Petrovich, letting himself down again. I took the sugar bowl from him. His eyes were smiling. “Would you like me to teach you?”
A month later, when the bird-cherry was in full bloom, Nikolai Petrovich and I took a trip out of town. The train was jammed and we stood packed like sardines on the platform. Some old codger had already stepped on my foot a couple of times. When even more people got on at Chistoprudnaya and I was rammed right up against a fat hulk, I looked round, rose very slightly above the bespattered floor, and hung there. Nikolai Petrovich, smoking an acrid cigaret, immediately grabbed me by the sleeve. “Don’t play the fool,” he said, “we agreed we wouldn’t.”
The first few lessons were absolutely dreamlike. I would listen carefully to Nikolai Petrovich, try to make some sense of his words, watch him inwardly prepare himself. Then a brief spasm would pass over his face and I would see him lift off, only a millimeter at first, then moving effortlessly upward. I listened to his patiently repeated explanations, while he reclined Chagallesque upon the air and told me about the relationship between the will and the body, about the inner (as distinct from the outer) fulcrum. I would grope about for something inside myself, absolutely blind, collapse, slide down, fetch up against some ragged sinister object, surface in the light of the red lampshade, under the searching gaze of my teacher.
He would change the subject, tell me about Gogol, about Bulgakov, he would stretch out upon the air, on the blue-grey layers of tobacco smoke with a copy of The Master and Margarita, the unbuttoned sides of his jacket hung down above me, crumbs of tobacco dribbled from a hole in his pocket, or small change rang down, while in his strange voice he read out the accounts of Margarita’s flights, lines that hurtled headlong, slanted under the angle of attack. “She was a witch, Okhlamonov,” Nikolai Petrovich would say. “But that’s a whole different kettle of fish. You might say that they fly in a different capacity. And it’s not that they have a different technique, they simply move in a different dimension. If one of these beauties should fly right through you, all you’d get as a rule is a headache, or a touch of rheumatism‑‑‑‑‑But there he is, Okhlamonov, the author, you hear? He knew far more about this than he let on in his book.... Not to mention Gogol, long before him.”
The first time I got off the ground, uttering a kind of groan, I didn’t so much raise myself as leap into the air—and hit my head so hard on the ceiling that I lay for half an hour in a faint among the scattered books. Nikolai Petrovich, pale and scared, stood over me with a damp towel, then squatted down, wiping the plaster dust from my face; there was dust on every surface. “My dear old chap,” said my teacher, when I began to come to myself and felt the big lump on my head, “I did warn you! One false move of the will and you’ll be off into the ether—not physically but psychically. Your astral chord won’t hold, and you’ll never get back into your body. You will not only grieve me, but embarrass me as well. What am I supposed to do with your remains? The neighbors, the police, the procurator with his well-fed mug—the whole shooting match. Try to understand: I’m not inviting you to go astral-wandering; let us try and get by without vulgar occultism, without Koktebel numbers.... I’m teaching you a simple thing: How to fly!”
We got off at a little station overgrown with fresh verdure. The road wound on through one more deserted cluster of country cottages, ran out into the field, and stumbled into the woods. Pine needles formed a springy carpet beneath our feet. An empty jam jar squeaked underfoot and flipped off into the bushes, spilling old snow. The woods came to an end. A river lay before us, a pool of fire under the westering sun. If you looked closely, the water was swelling and swirling in eddies, running secretly away into the thickening distance. We made our way along the edge of a freshly ploughed field, the rich soil upturned; not far off, a village church was settling down for the night. The cross blazed crimson. There was not a soul about; it was the hour when nothing is left of reality but a tremulous question mark.
Nikolai Petrovich picked a restful glade, moist with dew and hidden by nut trees. “Now then, Okhlamonov,” he urged, “don’t get carried away, don’t fly too high. Remember what I told you. High voltage lines are especially dangerous. And large expanses of water. And don’t be afraid of anything. If you should be really and truly frightened, even for only a fraction of a second, you understand? That’ll be the end!” Nikolai Petrovich adjusted his spring hat, pulling it lower over his eyes. “Just don’t get excited, that’s all, lie down on the air. It’s always harder to fly standing. And it’s not good for the vascular system either. Lie down, and don’t be afraid of anything!”
I leaned forward. Between me and the new grass, with flowers of as-yet unknown color poking through, there was an elastic, living force. I lay down. I was simply lying very low above the richly fragrant earth and rocking. I could turn over on my back. I could swoop abruptly upward, amorphously, like a handkerchief. I could plummet, as if punching holes in the air, in any direction. Squinting down, I glimpsed Nikolai Petrovich still standing in the little clearing below. With an encouraging gesture he sketched a circle on the air. Breathing deeply to control a certain shortness of breath, I spiralled upward. My teacher’s hat tipped sideways and blew off. What I was experiencing could hardly be called joy. It was flight, liberation, tears that blurred the suddenly expanding horizon, it was my hair streaming, my mind streaming; it was a new life—in an instant I became older, I lost nothing but was infected then and forever with a kind of knowledge hitherto inaccessible to me.
Nikolai Petrovich flew a little below and behind me. His coattails flapped. His arms were spread wide. I understood that he was insuring my maiden flight. Church, copse, clearing, fields, river—all dwindled rapidly, fell away, canted sideways, stood on end. “Good, Okhlamonov,” shouted Nikolai Petrovich, “very good! I am satisfied with you....” And although dusk was quickly gathering and the lights began to twinkle sadly in the little village far below, the rim of the world was still wreathed in golden light. I drew some gloves from my pocket, turning a clumsy somersault. It was getting a bit cold up there. The summer was only just beginning.
We returned in full darkness. Nikolai Petrovich, winding my scarf round his arm, allowed us to fly all the way to the station. He had chosen this bit of country just outside Moscow for a simple reason: there was some kind of prohibited area close by, surrounded by barbed wired—watchtowers, rails, floodlights—and no aircraft flew this way.
Do you know what it’s like returning to earth? I stood, swaying, in the damp darkness; an enormous lead ball was fastened to my feet. A moment later we were seated on a bench in the station: my heart had turned into a kind of porridge. “You, my friend,” said Nikolai Petrovich, the glow of his crackling cigaret illuminating his absent face, “today you burned up enough adrenalin for the next five-year plan. Absolutely nothing until next Tuesday, not even domestic exercises.” And then we started talking trivialities: about keys, and how we would now have to pin them on; about tree branches at night and how they could put your eye out; about television antennae that would suddenly materialize out of the resilient dark, just when you least expected it.
Who will give me back those incredible months? If you were to pour champagne into the air, so that space itself became joyously tipsy and swarmed with pricking bubbles.... No, I can’t explain. There was a moment when it seemed that everything would come crashing down. Not that I would forget how, not at all, there could be no question of that. No, catastrophe was looming in our earthly life, hanging over us, mixing everything up; and suddenly it broke, like a storm in the night, turned into a joyous pealing of bells: Katenka defected to me! Oh yes! She appeared one morning after breakfast, with a cautious smile and an ancient leather traveling bag, stood in the doorway, and said: “Okhlamonov, I have come to live with you! Not to see you, to live with you.” I was shaving at the time and everything looked idiotic: half my face smothered in lather, one inflamed and staring eye fixed on Katenka’s image in the mirror (something I’m very much afraid of, incidentally) while the dangerous blade was posed over my outstretched throat. “But what about Kolenka?” I hastily wiped my face with a not altogether fresh towel. “He released me so I could come to you,” said Katenka. She was looking straight at me, and had not yet put her things down on the floor. “He said he had long foreseen this, even that it was better this way.” I made as if to bow deeply. She looked at me even more seriously, more penetratingly, perhaps she was looking beyond me to some other day, and did not so much set down her traveling bag as simply relax her grip, so that everything fell to the floor with a thump. “Okhlamonov,” she said, “you live like a hermit, you live like Kolenka’s shadow. You need to become fully embodied.” And she shook her head. I was seized with shame at my apartment, the discolored wallpaper, the things lying where I had dropped them, the week’s worth of unwashed dishes on the writing table. Thank God the blinds were only raised a few inches—I rarely opened the windows, since I was always either developing or printing.
After standing in a daze for a second, with a ringing in my ears, I was just about to start rushing feverishly about snatching things up, cutting a wide swath through this moss of disorder, when Katenka, still strange, still alien, came right up to me so that her breasts poked into me and set me afire—for some reason I wasn’t yet dressed that morning, or rather all unbuttoned still—and said the last thing I expected: “You’ll take pictures of me naked, won’t you? Stark naked?” and not waiting for a reply she swung into the air, twisting and turning. “He taught me too, he’s such a genius! He said it would only be the two of us. Only you and I would be given the secret.” And somehow she did it quite differently—I’m afraid to say “like a woman,” because if you’ve never tried it yourself, you will laugh at me—she floated up to the clothes line, where yesterday’s rolls of film were hung up to dry.
That evening distant thunder tossed and turned in its dry bed. Rolled its r’s. Played its skittles. Toward midnight the murk thickened ominously, writhing and swirling like milk. Shafts of lemon-yellow lightening struck at random. Windows banged. The poplar below our window shivered feverishly. Then the rain came down in torrents. It rained so hard it seemed the whole of life must be swept away. A generous, outlandish deluge.
I still have photographs from that period. One time, when I was already living in Paris, in an access of homesickness I showed one picture to a veteran of the art; he examined it at length, frowned, spilled cigar ash on the carpet, asked to see the negative. “I’ll give you half the Man Ray Prize,” he announced finally, “if you will explain to me how it was done.” I spread my hands. What explanation could I give him? In that sundrenched room, amid a disorder immortalized by my lens—books scattered about, portraits pinned up askew, the lines with her washing and my film hung up to dry; in that room, whose dresser still played host to silver sugar bowls that had somehow not yet found their way to the pawnbroker’s and icons that had escaped the depradations of the diplomatic corps—in that room, Katenka lay upon the air, her arms spread wide: wonderful, stark naked Katenka. Her hair—she had just tossed her head—whirled like a golden comet in the suspended air of that day that was happy almost beyond bearing. There was no gimmick.
On the table lay a big packet of our Moscow photographs: Katenka in the bathroom, lying flat, like at a fakir’s seance; one breast lolls to the side, nipple peeping at the lens; I stand beside her in a raincoat and hat (I had set the camera to auto-release) and hold the shower hose behind her neck—the sparkling cone of water fans down over her, time has not yet licked away the droplets on her skin. Katenka in the woods, in a little satin dress, diving head first in pursuit of a flower borne away on the wind; a bumblebee in his unseasonably luxurious fur coat provided her with a perfect bracelet, a buzzing woodland wristwatch. Or here is Katenka on a moonlit night (I was using time exposure): looking somehow already completely astral, as if drenched in the light of the full moon, in this picture she is resolved into a succession of translucent blue images—flowing turns, somersaults, silken glimmers of elbow and knee.
I cannot endure this, I don’t mean describing the photographs, but calling back the days cancelled by the calendar.... I would do better to burn the whole lot.
The master, honorary chairman of many contests and commissions, thinking it would be a nice way to bring me out of my trance—since I had already forgotten about my half of the photography prize—offered to buy this Moscow photo for the magazine The Eye. He even offered a sum several times larger than anything I could have dreamed. But I declined. I had to decline. The picture was now lying on the table on a pile of photography magazines. Black-and-white Katenka with her tear drop of a navel, with the transparent fuzz that edged her somehow always inflamed delta, Katenka, looking so real, so piercingly real, that I went weak all over—Katenka was, now and forever more, beyond reach.
But going back now in time and dropping down into that blooming summer I see the two of us, completely happy, not so much beautiful—although she was unquestionably a beauty—as bearing the marks of the half-swooning ecstasies we shared. Now I see that same nailbitten finger of destiny that was poked into those days as pointing the way (nowadays, with mockery in my heart for my own and everyone else’s absurdity, I often wonder when the index finger will be joined by its four brothers and the whole little family will turn into an avenging fist): because all the details of that life, the whole atmosphere of that time, have emerged as it were from mute obedience and cry aloud, mouth gaping wide.... Now it seems to me that if people in that society were made fools of, turned inside out to show their worst and coarsest side (hence the insane sensitivity of our life then!), that is, to reveal that on the inside they were lined with the drab fustian of the Party, now it seems to me that we were among the first to be demagnetized.
God, how mischievous she was! How many times did we do it in the air. The first time—the walls abandoned their right angles and rushed to intercept us, a lopsided picture broke from its cord and plunged into oblivion, a big bottle of cherries in brandy fell from the dresser with a crash (but didn’t break), a scratch on my back took a week to heal—that was the window catch which, seizing its chance, gouged me between the shoulder blades. We had to learn to respect the lamp, to be mindful of nails, we had to learn prudence enough not to go crashing into the window sill, crammed with jars, cups and coffee pot. One stifling night we fell asleep in each other’s arms and I awoke, after I don’t know how many minutes had rustled past, feeling her all tenderly wrapped around me, warm and moist—awoke with sudden alarm. For a moment I was completely disorientated; I knew only that somewhere close by deadly brilliant drops were flaring and dying, and near my neck something was scraping and scratching. At such moments the most difficult thing is to figure out which is up and which is down. Luckily for me a sliver of moon cut through the thick midnight clouds. Then from below came a harsh grinding sound, and I saw a shower of electric sparks. I got us out of there fast, holding her tight as she began to stir—we were in the street, we had floated out the window, we were lying almost on top of the streetcar power lines.
From that night on I put a net over the window, but we soon stopped sleeping in the air: autumn came on quickly, with prolonged bouts of icy rain; no matter how tightly we wrapped the blanket round us, it would slip off. And then, at the end of an Indian summer that blazed up in russet warmth, one day the accursed telephone rang, and we learned that Kolenka had been arrested.
Rumors that people who could fly had begun appearing in the land arose spontaneously. The first time I heard about people flying was in a queue. They were selling off a few scrawny superannuated chickens. Two old girls, complete primitives bundled up in quilted coats, were shaking their heads and sending up balloons with some pretty strange bits of dialogue. Hearing “... and he, God forgive us, just shoots up into the sky,” I moved closer. The narrator crossed herself, while her companion, a woman with permanently clenched features, nodded monotonously. “And Manya, he’s flying like an angel! Everybody comes running, of course. The militia draw their revolvers, take aim, but he’s already higher than the Pushkin monument. But one fellow, in civvies, shoots two-fisted—and gets him! We all run to look—but he’s already gone. They carted him off, of course ... to examine him. Maybe he wasn’t one of ours. But he looked ordinary enough, I tell you Manya. Flew over people’s umbrellas. Wearing trousers. Semeonovna, from the grocery, says she even saw a hole in his boot.”
I got excited. But the rumors were coming in from all over. Predictably, the talk around town vested the flyers with the virtues of old-styled heroes. Judging from the stories, one flew into the pawnshop opposite the Procurator’s Office and before the eyes of the dumbfounded crowd carried off a hat full of gold. Of another it was told how he carried away 25,000 rubles in cash through the open window of the House of Writers on Lavrushensky. The window, they said, was on the sixth floor. The fool of a maid, they said, had opened the windows to air the place and was gabbing on the phone.
The rumors multiplied, and once, in a boulevard cafe where I used to go to pick up the latest gossip, I struck luck. A couple of young people, whose alcoholic talk was punctuated with phrases like “sure, man,” “I’m not one of your suggestible types,” and, as I especially recall, “but they’ve had the Bermuda triangle in the family for ages ... ,” had fallen to discussing the reasons for the appearance of people who could fly. Now, of course, all this sounds like parody, like a mixture of night blindness and far-sightedness, but in those days I was still taking things at face value. “Man,” said the first, “this is no mass psychosis organized by the Lubianka to distract people from the realities of life. No. People, driven into the most colossal social cul-de-sac, without any possibility whatever of breaking out, are starting to dream of the surreal. If you like, the idea of levitation is being born. And it isn’t the first time. Think of India, the flying sphinxes of Egypt; think of the Bible. There have been similiar periods in history before. People have to have hopes, fantasies, they’ve been emasculated, man, by Karl Marx’s materialist knife.... They want to recover their divine nature. To be like angels. So begins the dream of flight!... Let’s have another.” His companion was gloomier. “What dreams? What are you blathering about? A geologist in the Urals is shot down by helicopter—that’s a dream? A party of drunks doesn’t feel like paying the bill at the restaurant on the Ostankinsk television tower and splits through the window—that’s a dream too? And the growing amount of information, the increasing number of cases—what is that? I tell you, it all sounds more than real to me.” “Forget it,” rejoined the first, “modern myths put on a veneer of modern details. Soviet man sublimates his longing into a handy image. Later on the image is fleshed out, down to the very buttons, to the most practical details.” “But man,” the second burst out, “what about the reaction of the authorities? It’s unambiguous! Do you think all these expert panels and research centers are dumber than we are?... Let’s have another.... I figure their information is a bit better than ours. I bet they’re taking the rumors more than seriously. Machine guns on the rooftops? Don’t be silly. And TV cameras aimed at the sky? I’m no soft-headed mystic, but just suppose we really are mutants. Man, we’ve just been dragged through an atrociously cruel period of history. It’s natural that life should see no way out of this ‘progressive’ blind alley. The world is really and truly at the end of its rope. And divine nature—there I absolutely agree with you—divine nature is coming up with something new to save us!... Let’s have another.... What is the greater wonder: that we walk, or ... fly? From a fish’s point of view there’s no difference. And there’s nothing supernatural about a fish—a fish, that’s reality!” and he noisily jabbed his aluminum fork into his plate: it was Thursday. “Maybe the increasing incidence of levitation really is a higher form of social development which society is beginning to approach—another little drop—through the impenetrable thickets of Communism?” “Ah, shove it!” the first could suddenly stand it no longer, “you’re talking pure gibberish, like some halfwit member of the Institute of Marxist Maundering! If I agree with you at all about anything, it’s that people are absolutely fed up, and if they really are starting to fly, it is out of longing and despair.”
I listened to their tipsy conversation in a welter of perspiration. My eyes went completely out of focus and swam in a luminous mist. Many things began to be revealed to me. After all, I have never pondered the matter deeply. There was a second when it became my life, an everyday thing, a gift. I had never felt anything other than the simple possibility of moving resiliency through the air. It was my secret freedom—and Katenka’s too, of course. And that’s all!
They finally sensed my presence. Turning round at once, both somehow darkened, and the first—glasses and a crooked beard—said in a phoney voice: “And it was she herself who put it to him. In the doorway. She has a husband at home. Dead drunk, as usual....”
They had taken me for an informer.
On my way out of the cafe, feeling their eyes on my back, I rose up in the doorway, hung there for a bit, just long enough for them to get a good look, pushed the door to, and flew off. Well, what else could I have done to help them?
Along Sadovoye Koltso the wind chased dry, swirling leaves. The puddles were frozen over. The evening crowd flowed heavily along the street, swirled in grey eddies, spitting out individuals who had lost the rhythm. A moustached militiaman stood heavily, his big boots planted wide apart. A woman climbed heavily—though still young—onto a bus. A grey wino breathed heavily on the corner, as he rested with an enormous string bag bulging with empty bottles. Even a snot-nosed urchin, though one of nature’s sparrows, trudged along on elephantine feet. Oh, if only they would—just for a second—switch off the gravity generator at the center of our happy globe! If only everyone were allowed to become weightless every Friday! I envisioned the empty canyons of the streets, the sky speckled with flyers. Shame on you, I said to myself, shame on you, Okhlamonov, for this lapse into old-fashioned sentimentality. I turned off toward Nikitsky Gate. In a back alley near the School of Music, someone had scrawled in big black letters: “TO EACH HIS PLACE SOME LOW SOME HIGH.”
The phone rang one dark, dank morning. Katenka was singing in the bathroom. Her little bits of washing, her ability to keep house without fuss and bother, filled me with admiration. I went over to the phone. The caller did not give his name, but I immediately realized it was one of Kolya’s neighbors in the communal apartments, an old grouch, a retired jerk of an army captain. “That smart-ass friend of yours,” he whined, “they’ve taken the scribbler and put him where he belongs!” and gave a phlegmy snigger.
It was the beginning of the end. I knew nothing as yet, but ice suddenly flowed in my veins.
You didn’t have to be a Spinoza to guess that Kolenka had not been seized for writing poetry, though it too was far from innocuous. Here is how it came out later: the yard concierge, an old witch paid to spy on the tenants, glanced through the window one evening and saw Nikolai Petrovich resting above the table. He was dozing, poor fellow, an open book in his hand threatened to slip down, kept its word, and fell with a soft thud. Kolenka awoke and dove head first after the faithless book. The woman started back from the fogged-up window and, clutching her broom like a flagstaff, rushed off to telephone the appropriate quarters. In the appropriate quarters there had long been a research center to deal with such problems in the appropriate manner. A sort of Scientific Research Institute for the Study of the Surreal.... Nikolai Petrovich was taken away forthwith. They say he was flanked by two heavy-set characters, both handcuffed to the poor poet—in case he tried to fly away.
Russian-language broadcasts from abroad, too, were full of incredible news. The BBC reported it had been learned from diplomatic circles in Moscow that the Central Committee was definitely concerned about the situation in the country. The announcer even declared that the appearance of people who could fly was directly connected with the dissatisfaction and the desire of millions of people for freedom. The Voice of America was now broadcasting a daily fifteen-minute program entitled “The Wings of Freedom,” and assured its listeners that the population of the USSR was at last emerging from a period of weakness of will, blindness, and humiliation by violence, and was now ready to go flying off all over the world. It was rumored that Washington had held secret talks with its allies on the number of flyers who might defect and methods of putting them to use. It was proposed to revive a project, put on ice in the late seventies, for the construction of artificial floating islands. The CIA calculated the percentage of potential agents insinuated among the mass of defecting flyers, but the Swami Vivekananda occult centre just outside the U.S. capital immediately issued a statement saying that no orthodox servant of the regime would be capable of getting off the ground by even the thickness of a party card. West Germany, taking no part in the disputes, began building an enormous tent city. Along the borders of the satellite countries, directional arrows were now lit up at night. France splurged on colored lights and half the night sky of Paris blazed out the message: WELCOME!
All these strange tidings seeped through the chronic bronchitis of my old radio; but not, as yet, one single report of a successful defection by flight.
In January we hardly flew at all. It had become too dangerous. Anyway, it was difficult to stay up for long in the snow-laden air, despite our fur coats and hats. Katenka tired quickly, snow got in our eyes, and we might be spotted, even in the woods. Katya suggested sewing us some white suits. This would have been wonderful, but we had almost no money at all.
The frosts of Epiphany arrived with a bang. On St. Tatiana’s day I learned exactly where they were holding Kolenka. I looked in at Lukov Street, the neighbors showed me the sealed door with joyous trepidation. I had expected scarlet sealing wax, the National Emblem, like on a general’s button; instead there was a slip of paper and faded blue seals. There had been no search—too many books. I was told they would now be given to the Lenin Library. They only took away papers lying on the table and, strange as it may seem, the cat. The bit about the cat I don’t believe, incidentally. The neighbors had long wanted to do him in. Poor old puss. Formally, Kolenka was charged with the usual thing, breach of public order, although phrases like “losing touch with reality” were slipped in. He could be held only in a cell or in a camp enclosed in some sort of special netting. But in the final analysis, even this charge was flim-flam. What they wanted from him was just one thing: how?
I can vouch for Kolenka, I am quite sure that no amount of neuroleptic drugs could drag out of him those utterly simple yet incredibly deep explanations with which he changed my life forever, in the spring. Kolenka was as soft as wax, tender-hearted, loving; but like everyone else he hated what was going on, he didn’t even hate it, he rejected it biologically.
At last I understood the meaning of the message he sent on with Katenka: “It’ll be better this way....”
Rumors began to circulate that they were closing the country in earnest, that taxes would be raised, vodka would go up yet again, even whale meat would cost twice as much, while the military budget was to be sharply increased so as to carry out a colossal project: something like enclosing the whole country under one gigantic bell jar. There were arguments about ultraviolet radiation, about photosynthesis, all sorts of things connected with the sun’s rays, respiration, and so on. A friend of mine, a pilot in civil aviation, told me what I have no doubt is true: that the Western frontiers were already being patroled by aircraft flying in pairs with a kilometer-long net strung between them. There was talk of the problem of birds. The West also began to take the whole business a lot more seriously. NATO began to fear that the Soviet army would harness the experience of the flyers and war would assume an entirely new character. The possibility of a completely new and appallingly concrete isolation from the rest of the world was becoming more and more real. Although for me, who had never been further afield than Tallin, it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. It was in those fleeting, chaotic days that I chanced upon a somewhat confused article by Professor Pogoreltsev.
Katya brought it home from the dressmaker, whose husband was by way of being an underground bookseller—he made copies of Solzhenitsyn, Barkov, or Steiner. He did all the bindings himself and was pretty inexpensive. We used to get all sorts of new stuff from him, for a night or two—a Nabokov story, or an article by some dissident. In ordinary life the bookseller worked as an elevator operator.
Katenka had run herself up a marvellous punky dress, although there was nowhere she would ever be able to wear it. I shall explain why. A translator acquaintance of ours wangled us an invitation to an international beer exhibition, at Sokolniki Park. The exhibition was closed, for the trade only, and it was hard to get in. When we got inside the pavilion, of course, Katenka and I found everyone we knew: loft artists, underground poets, and Madame Kasilova famous for her midnight salons, and actors from the Polyanka, and even the ambassador of the Republic of Burundi, who never failed to show up at every party thrown by unofficial Moscow. We walked to the exhibition across the enormous snowbound park. It was early evening, darkness was falling rapidly, the snowdrifts glowed a deep blue. The park’s innumerable walks were packed with ice—kilometers of marvelous skating. People were walking and falling, falling and walking. They laughed, swore, and fell some more. Katenka, too, slipped, fell and bruised herself. It was so silly to walk, comically pawing the ground, when it cost nothing to simply pick up and fly. I was especially struck, then, by the manifest absurdity of ordinary locomotion. Inside the pavilion each country had set up its own bar. We had never seen anything like this: comfortable, clean, invisible music playing; beautiful girls in little aprons passing round mugs of beer, not a single cop—not in uniform, that is. The clientele consisted of our lot and their lot. Our lot had long hair, wore tattered jeans and sweaters; theirs—from the ministries and committees—were heavily built and had on suits; their eyes were oily with hatred. They were drinking lots of ale, they grew heavily drunk, and began importuning the busty barmaids without understanding a word of anything but Russian. One, with a protruding lower lip and party eyebrows, was saying to a friend: “Translate for me, tell her HI give her two kilos of caviar... what the hell, make it four kilos....”
The Germans had simply set up an antique fire engine in their part of the pavilion. It was all gleaming with red lacquer and highly polished brass. The barrel with its pump was full of powerful Munich beer. A bare-legged floozie in a golden helmet treated us to hot sausages. It made you think longingly of a putsch.
Katenka grew flushed and started playing the fool. Lit by carnival flashes of colored light, she stood before a beer-sodden apparatchik and allowed herself to be wafted up on a light of current of air, then sank modestly back again: up... down, up... down. The man’s face darkened apoplectically, with his great paw he clutched now at his heart, now at the wall. I didn’t get cross. No one else had seen her.
But when we emerged into full darkness, broken only by the occasional street lamp, and then made our way along a slippery path past a row of flagstaffs thrumming in the wind, I couldn’t stand it any longer either and, flying briskly up ten meters or so, spent a good half-minute disentangling an American flag from its pole while my fingers grew numb with the cold. Katenka clapped her hands and twirled delightedly below. I glided safely back to earth with the flag bundled under my arm, and we rushed off in search of a taxi, now and then briefly taking off from the black ice in our impatience. An old Odessan promised to have us home in no time, we grew languid in the warmth of his taxi and lay wrapped up in each other while he rattled off one story after another, laughing at his own jokes in a voice hoarse from too many cigarettes. A ground mist eddied in the empty street and squares. The city seemed to simmer.
That night we joined Western democracy, spreading the flag on our bed, still smelling of snow and only slightly damp. Next morning, when the winter sun touched the poplar’s bare branches with red, when Katenka called out that coffee was ready, I was pulling the ragged quilt over our bed when I noticed among the stars and stripes a tiny spot where she had slept—Katenka was having her period.
Anyway, for a laugh, she used the flag to make herself a long, rustling gown. Can you imagine wearing such a thing to the Bolshoi or the Conservatoire?
Back from the dressmaker’s, hovering at various heights before our submarine mirror, eaten away by rust and time, she announced: “On the Fourth of July I shall go to the Yank reception ... the military attaches can all salute me....” “Watch your language,” I said in alarm. “Oh yes,” reaching behind her back for the zip, “there’s an article in the bag over there by that what’s-his-name—Pogoreltsev—who goes to the church at Sokol.”
Professor Pogoreltsev, who had done fifteen years in the camps, was the author of a scandalous book, Between Fear and Fear. The book, which had only got into print by a fluke, and was hastily withdrawn from all libraries, was officially about the culture of Tibet; in it the author said that the Christo-Piscean age came to an end in the mid-sixties, and that the Age of Aquarius now beginning would have to find some new symbolic realization. We all knew about that: the signs of the Zodiac, rising counterclockwise; the Magi, last representatives of Djinns and Aladdin’s lamps, at Christ’s cradle; the new star above them; the next two thousand years; Aquarius, the “man-angel” ...but no one knew how all this would begin to manifest itself. The professor reckoned that the appearance of people who could fly was to be expected, that it was no accident, that there was no need to fear the country would really be sealed off—he meant the bell jar. “There’s no way they can keep us under glass!” he quipped. But the most important thing Pogoreltsev wrote was that “even within the Kremlin walls, here and there people are starting to lift off from the waxed parquet, and any day now we may witness an extraordinary happening, when high above the stars of the Kremlin, so inauspicious for our age, will fly the black figure of an eminence grise and the chimes on Spassky Tower will ring in a brand new age....”
This article got the left intelligentsia all excited. Hope for a new surge of liberalism seized Moscow like a fever. The editor of The Mirror, the most widely-read underground monthly, wrote a letter to the editorial board of Novy Mir proposing that they join forces on the threshold of the new life. The painter Odnoglazov exhibited a huge canvas at the Manege: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Suvorov, the actor Smoktunovsky, even Vasilij Vasilievich Rozanov—all, from various quarters of the cloud-wreathed heavens, were converging on the Cathedral of Vassilij Blazhennij (Basil the Blessed). Katenka said it looked like a witches’ sabbath.
From my omniscient friend, as I already mentioned, I got the address of the top secret institute where I figured they had to be holding Nikolai Petrovich. During rush hours, when the streets were jammed with sullen crowds, I would affect a businesslike air and walk briskly past the faceless building. It was again spring, here and there in the grey mass of humanity you caught a fleeting smile, it was nice to hear the scrape of people’s shoes on the pavements now free of snow, there was a smell of sun-warmed dust, and from somewhere far away a mild, disturbing wind blew in upon the city. The lower stories of the spellbound building were faced with granite, and there were very solid-looking bars on all the windows. Higher up these disappeared, and the topmost story, with a balcony running all the way round and the blunt snouts of TV cameras poking out, was wide open—a trap for idiots. Below, of course, a grey Volga was doing time on the street across from the front entrance, with four heavies inside. The front doors bore the modest black-and-gold legend: “Committee on Vibrations.” The people going in and out through these doors were either as unobtrusive as mice, or in a state of feverish excitement. After a week of surreptitiously observing the general to-ing and fro-ing of officials, I picked out one seamed but still quite decent-looking face and, very nearly making a fatal mistake, set off behind the velvet coat as it mingled wearily with the crowd. In a nearby side street, lined with rotting shacks like broken-down furniture put out for sale, I was already bracing myself to pronounce the ritual phrase “Excuse me,” when suddenly I felt rather than heard a bulldoggy panting at my back and, without pausing for thought, took off like a rocket into the clear pink sky, and flew off at great speed. All I managed to see out of the corner of my watering eye were two men standing in the narrow street below, their raincoats blown open by the wind, heads thrown back and arms outstretched. It was a long time since I had last flown over open spaces, and I had grown unused to it. My head swam, and in a matter of seconds I skipped over the cornice of a twelve-story building equipped with something very much like a machine gun nest. But I had to return to life just as rapidly as I had leapt out of it. It was a dormer window in one of Stalin’s skyscrapers that saved me. There was no glass, and I flew inside with nothing worse than a scratched cheek. It smelled of dust, and enormous portraits of leaders looked down at me from every wall. Whoever was in charge of the place was clearly guilty of brazen dereliction, since he kept not only the current bigwigs, whose portraits had to be displayed on public holidays, but also the long-since superannuated. Pushing open a door thick with the dust of ages and stepping out onto a stair, I turned round—the “Kremlin mountaineer”—was casting a sidelong glance at his bald-headed successor.
Back on the street, wiping the blood from my cheek with a handkerchief, I saw the obscene dragon-fly shape of a helicopter flying impermissibly low, darkening the sky.
A few days later I received in the mail a modest slip of paper indicating that at 11 a.m. on Tuesday next I was to report to Inspector N. at such-and-such an address; it was signed with a flourish. The address, needless to say, was the very same. I did not know what to do. Katenka, fragrant, crazy Katenka, who these days was always carefully groomed and dressed, who even had her hair done and used French perfume bought one lucky day in a Ladies on Petrovka—Katenka was hanging in the corner, in a patch of sunlight, and the smoke from her cigaret traced patterns in the still air. A Wagner record—the Ride of the Valkyries—had just finished playing, and the needle ran on idly in the groove. “Don’t go,” said Katenka, “simply don’t go. They have no right. They don’t give you a clue what it’s about, or who they represent, instead of the inspector’s name there’s just an initial.” I stood beneath her for a moment, raised my face, rubbed against her hem, kissed her slender ankle. Something was happening. We both felt it. Something was bearing down on us from afar. I decided to go. But if Katenka was even then meditating my flight, my fear was that I might lose her.
So I went. I said, to hell with it, and went. I did, however, phone the one man I knew with connections in high places, explained when I was going and where. I had the idiotic illusion .that if anything happened to me he might be able to help, through his father, the General Secretary’s personal interpreter from Bengali. It didn’t even occur to me to wonder how often the General Secretary met with Bengalis.
Katenka, swaying in the doorway, said: “This isn’t goodbye, you hear?” and I set off.
Of course, I wound up at the “Committee on Vibrations,” but through a different entrance. The sign on the door, too, was different. Believe it or not, what it said—this time on a bit of cardboard, admittedly, as if only temporary, and I like a fool even thought it might be meant for me!—was: “NON-BORING-CASES: RECEPTION” and some room number. The inspector’s name, too, was scrawled beneath: Nikakov. No mention of forename or patronymic. The porter, wearing some special gear that looked more military than any actual uniform, called up the inspector, having first taken away my passport. While he was telephoning, with his back to me, I surveyed a portrait of the leader standing on the brink of a precipice: below, in the valley, lay a vast sea-girt city. It looked as if any moment the leader would either take flight, or drop like a stone. The skirts of his army greatcoat were already flung wide. There was the sound of a steel door opening, and the inspector was bearing down on me, his little grey eyes already fixed on me from afar. He was on the small side, roundish, there didn’t seem anything special about him. He wore a thin, crooked smile, the sort people used in the old days when screwing in a lorgnette. “Nikakov,” he said, not, thank God, offering me his hand. Right at the door, with its row of illuminated buttons, he suddenly rounded on me and gave me a penetrating stare. I naturally lowered my gaze. Quick as a wink he spun round again and pressed one of the buttons. The door slid back. We walked down long dimly lit corridors. The floor was covered with a soft plastic material of a dark cherry color. They say that when Professor Pogoreltsev got roughed up a bit somewhere around here, then taken off to his cell, he left behind no alarming trail of blood spots—the floor covering absorbed everything without trace.
In his office, having seated me on a hard, straight chair, Nikakov sprawled in a leather armchair opposite and immediately seemed to fill out and grow Digger. Above him hung another portrait °f the leader. This time the leader was standing on the very brink of the Kremlin wall. Far below, red-bannered crowds flowed past, and the sky was thick with aircraft. It seemed as if with one more gust of wind the leader would take off. The skirts of his grey gabardine raincoat were already spreading, wing-like. “Can you guess,” said Nikakov, pushing across cigarets and an ashtray, “why we have invited you here?”
The conversation was like the onset of flu. I felt hot and uncomfortable in the thick sweater I had instinctively put on that morning, together with winter socks, although the whole boulevard was already turning green. I kept breaking out in a cold sweat, I was all shrinking from the terribly strange things the inspector was saying. He had genuine mastery of an art unknown to me: taking ordinary Russian and turning it into stiff, rote-learned phrases, rusty but full of barbs. These phrases got inside my head and messed it up. I gurgled something in reply. “Your close friend,” Nikakov was saying, “Nikolai Petrovich Smolensky, has broken away from the masses. You understand what I mean, of course, when I say ‘broken away’? What he wanted, Okhlamonov, to speak plainly, was to elevate himself, as it were, to rise above his native land, above the working collective, above the Party, too, for that matter.... This, at least, is how he did feel.... Now he has repented his errors, now he has fully acknowledged them and taken them into account, thought things through and got to the bottom of things, now he has sobered up and woken up and cleared things up, now he groans with compunction.... “—some mechanism in Nikakov had jammed, but he gave his shoulders a shake, grimaced spasmodically, and got himself back under control, though still skidding a bit behind the facade—41... has reflected and now regrets his errors, has analyzed his errors and is now punishing himself....” Nikakov kept fiddling with a pencil, but although it twisted and turned every which way, at regular intervals its sharp, black point was aimed directly at me. “You were a friend of the accused, were you not?” asked the inspector. “Yes,” I said, “we were friends. I respected his talent.” Nikakov spun around once in his swivel chair like a child, showing a ham-colored bald patch, then set off again. His little smile, like a laddered stocking, split open stitch by stitch across his scrubbed face: “So we may conclude from the aforesaid”—I swear the words “my dear boy” were trembling on his lips—”that you were not only his admirer, drinking companion, and perhaps something else as well that we have not yet ascertained, but, to put it mildly, his pupil”
This was so stupid that I was suddenly bored, bored to death, and not for the first time that false spring. You know how it is when absolutely everything you look at makes you sick. Under my jacket I could feel the warm bulk of a flask—my sweet Katenka had slipped a flask of cognac into an unsuspecting pocket. 1 wished Nikakov would go to the lavatory, or to see his boss, so I could have a drink. And, as if someone had read my mind, there was a buzz from some apparatus with lots of buttons bearing the legend “Bell System” and Nikakov, saying something into the machine, got up and walked to the door. “1 have to leave you for a minute,” he said.
The office was painted a vile official color—lettuce-green, as the poet Oshanin put it. A brown border ran along the top. On one wall there was a long, unusually horizontal mirror. There were no bars on the window, but each pane had a pale triangle stamped in one corner—the kind of glass they say you can’t break even by hitting it with a stool. The table had nothing on it but a calendar, and n copy of Pravda with a leading article entitled “Dig Deeper Roots in our Native Soil,” I got up and stretched. The flask glowed amber when I drank in front of the mirror. There was a mysterious, even whirring and clicking sound from one corner. I felt sleepy, either from the cognac or from the strain on my nerves. I went over to the window and leaned my forehead against the glass. It gave onto an inner courtyard. I could see the planked footway of an exercise area, with a barred roof overhead and netting along the sides. A couple of soldiers stood smoking by the massive gates. A sick pigeon with a festering beak cooed on the window ledge. The glass was damp and I recoiled in horror, realizing that the inspector’s breath had participated in the formation of this moisture.
Nikakov returned an hour later. Saying nothing he sat down at the table, opened a drawer, got out what appeared to be a standard questionnaire and began rapidly filling it out. His questions now were dry, ordinary, and I answered automatically. The pencil lay lifeless on the table. From the yard below I could hear tramping sounds and the shouts of guards. The whirring noise had also stopped. A very palpable hatred was simmering quietly inside me. Nikakov finished writing. “Sign here,” he said. I read through the statement, which said that I was a friend of Kolenka, was an admirer of his poetry, but had never taken part in any of his experiments. “Take it next door to be stamped”—Nikakov handed me a pass—”someone will see you out.” His voice rose to a squeak, and he himself seemed to shrink and dwindle in size, just as if someone had let the air out of him.
I left the office and knocked on the next door. Inside there was a glass partition; a man in a white coat stuck his head through the window like a cuckoo. Preferring the pass, I involuntarily glanced inside. God! the room next door to Nikakov’s office was a laboratory! Reels of pink and silver film lay heaped on the floor, lights winked on and off, screens gleamed all around. Along one wall ran a darkened horizontal window with a curtain drawn back half-way—this was the “mirror” in the neighboring office! They had been checking up on me....
A hand gave me back my pass and pointed to another door. An electric lock clicked. I took a chance and, with a cheeky grin, asked: “What? Won’t I do?” The white coat, returning to the reels of film, replied with his back to me: “We get your kind in here by the truckload. You weigh plenty, kid.”
Downstairs, handing over the pass in exchange for my passport, I surveyed the State Seal bearing sword and two crossed wings; and it was shortly after that, in the metro, that I tumbled to the rest of it: left alone, I was supposed to panic and give myself away, like scratching a forbidden place, was supposed to lose control if only for a second. and take off, if only a millimeter. “You weigh plenty!” They had been checking to see if I would lose weight!
From that same samizdat, from the same dressmaker (Katenka had made herself a golden gown out of a silk curtain; I once photographed her in it at sunset, hanging sadly above the cross atop a village church—her last photo in Russia), about a month later, reading the sixth blurred carbon copy, we learned that Kolenka had outwitted his jailers: had agreed to experiments and, when they transferred him from his cell (ceiling about 20 meters high) to a laboratory the size of an aircraft hangar, and freed him of everything but telemetry leads, had plunged from fifty meters up onto the only solid object—the professor’s table—everything else having been providentially upholstered in that same soft cherry-colored material—and died on impact. In Sweden a committee had already been set up to defend him. Radio Liberty regularly gave readings of his poetry, two young Americans had handcuffed themselves to the Emperor Cannon in the Kremlin in protest, but it was too late.... In May, when the first thunder storms were breaking over the city and the oak trees were in blossom, an article appeared in the Moscow Evening News calling Kolenka a charlatan who had fleeced his friends by promising to teach them something that does not exist. He was also, of course, described as suffering from the delusion that he was a great writer. The article was signed by a well-known poet.
At the very end of the month, when the few surviving front gardens were already ablaze with lilacs, Katenka dragged me off to the country. We went a long, long way out, to our beloved Nikolsky woods. There no one could see us, but for some reason she tenderly refused to do it in the air, as we had used to, but insistently drew me down onto the grass. She hugged me fiercely, with a new ardor, wound her legs around me, her embrace almost squeezed the breath out of me, her fragrant sweat, mingled with mine, bathed her face ... it was all more powerful than it had ever been before.
That day we definitively decided to fly away.
“Lead boots will soon be all the rage,” joked Katenka. She wasn’t far from the truth. Here and there “socially conscious” pensioners, not waiting for instructions from above (I suddenly realize that “from above” sounded ambiguous in those days) started putting up notices: FLYING STRICTLY FORBIDDEN. They were already drafting new legislation against “anti-social breaking away from the collective,” setting prison terms, etc., etc. It was even suggested that parents were responsible for their children, no matter if they themselves were incapable of rising above the prosaic realities of our native land.
In Tsvetnoy market the Georgians were selling tomatoes for exorbitant prices, someone had brought some plump gladioli into town, and the Prime Minister of Australia was due to arrive on an official visit, and an aphorism by the mayor of the city made the rounds of Moscow, to the effect that if anyone flew during the visit, heads would fly too—in a word, a pal! of ennui and desolation had descended, and Katenka and I finally got two plane tickets to Simferopol; from there we would make our way by road to Yalta, rest a while, take a look round. and, going out to sea one night on a pleasure boat, leave the country for ever.
Kolenka’s warning—not to fly over large expanses of water—naturally made us a bit apprehensive, but we had no choice. The Western frontiers were now being patrolled in earnest.
Do you know what Yalta is at night? No, not Soviet Yalta, full of drunks and street brawls, reeking of cheap perfume and suntan oil! A different Yalta. Mute, dwindling, sprawled on its side like a distant dying campfire. A city from which so many have fled.... A last memory, spiced with cheap jokes....
It was a close, moonless night. I had a child’s compass, bought at the last minute. I was so afraid the pointer would come off the needle‑‑‑‑‑
Again I go back to the photographs from those years—black and white, of course; color film from the West I got only rarely, it cost the earth. Here is Katenka bearing a tray of coffee through the air—a heavy tray from our grandmother’s day. She is finding it heavy going, so her naked little form is pitched downward, her legs pointing skyward, I can see the twin hills of her buttocks, the tender confluence of her breasts. Her hair is uncombed, carelessly pinned to one side. Her downy mound still to this day gives me the shakes. Katenka under a river bridge, in one hand she is holding a rolled-up newspaper and tooting on it like an archangel. Katenka upside down in our little apartment; her hair completely covers her face, her dress too has fallen back, only her legs stick straight up like a fountain.
I have one particular photo that fills me with particular sadness—Katenka is pulling back the shade: a winter window, snow-covered branches, a sparrow, the feeble sun, wires. She is wearing an old dressing gown. Holding it at her throat with one hand, as if something were strangling her. Sometimes I think that even then she knew what was going to happen.
The most surprising thing about this picture is that Katenka is standing on the floor.
I’m reaching for the matches.
How we got ourselves to Paris is another story. We undertook no more long flights. Except Turkey, which we cut across in three hot nights alive with the incessant buzzing of cicadas. The U. S. consul in Athens issued us our first Western documents. Of course they wanted to know all about us, but we concocted a simple-minded tale involving an inflatable dinghy, supplies of drinking water, and Lady Luck. Once launched, this idyllic fiction circulated for years through all the prefectures of Europe. Pretty soon I managed to sell a dozen or so of my photos to a French agency, received an advance—it was this, incidentally, that decided our choice of a country; they had promised us the rest on arrival in Paris—and we timidly rushed out to spend what was for us an enormous amount of money. The pictures, which showed up a week later on the front covers of various thick magazines, were the sort of thing I’d been doing all my life: streets, people, mainly people. I had taken only the last few from high up—there was one of Moscow slanting away below, bristling with the sinister spires of its dwarf skyscrapers, crushed beneath the funereal weight of administrative buildings.
In Paris we lived modestly, with a sort of melancholy gaiety. Something had infused the atmosphere of our relations for good: a certain quantity of what I thought was non-lethal poison. I tried not to hear news from Russia, bought no newspapers, but whether I liked it or not the magazines that used my work slipped in commentaries on Soviet life, and I was often overcome with disgust, as in Nikakov’s office—overtly or covertly, they were 99 per cent pro-Soviet.
Money started to come in. Katenka rented a narrow storefront in one of the back streets off Les Halles. She fixed up almost everything herself, herself went around buying stuff, and soon she opened a tiny boutique, “Chez Katy,” where everything, literally everything was the same dark-cherry color. I mean blouses, sugar, pants, tennis racquets, bottles of liqueur, boots, candles, glasses, even cakes and pastries. For a month the shop yawned empty, then buyers began arriving in droves—my Katenka became very fashionable, and you saw girls in the street dressed all in Katenka’s one color. I was gladdened by her success but, to be honest, frightened by the color.
One evening at a noisy party given by a famous art critic—every last painter was there to pay his commercial respects—Katenka and I were standing on a balcony. She was wearing a light dress and her bare hands were cupped, I’m afraid to say prayerfully, around a glass of champagne. Suddenly she started talking about Nikolai Petrovich, about his one-room library, while I looked down at the early-evening bustle of Montparnasse far below. What she was saying filled me with something heavy, and I was on the point of stopping her when I heard: “He gave it to us as a gift, and it became our salvation, and we never even try it any longer... not even a tiny bit....” Already bending, or rather pouring, over the rail of the balcony, she was slipping down. The rest happened in an instant: I saw her turn in a spiral, then plummet down, a colored ball with her gown streaming out behind; I heard the motley crowd gasp as it instantly formed itself into a perfect circle.... Why did I rush to the stairs, to get the elevator? To this day, I don’t know....
She was buried at Saint‑Genevieve-des‑Bois. There, where so many endlessly strange Russian fates have ended. There, too, visiting her grave, I once met a former Soviet engineer, now a voluntary Paris clochard. And the nicest possible life-loving clochard he was. I gave him a lift back into Paris, and when we were already sitting in a cafe, just about to part, he suddenly said to me: “They say those who could fly, once they get to the West they simply lose the ability.”
He was a merry soul, and his smile, hanging in the dimly-lit cafe, reminded me of the Cheshire cat—one of ours.
Koktebel: Traditional gathering place, on the Eastern shore of the Crimea, for Russian literati interested in occultism and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. To some extent the tradition is still alive today. —Translator’s note
In the Soviet Union people are required to eat fish on Thursdays. —Translator’s note